journey to the west

dave stafford



Dave Stafford, September, 2010: After the enormous amount of work produced in the last half of the 1990s, the year 2000 was really a year to take stock, in 1998 and 1999 I had looked back, but now it was time to look forward.


Interesting musical experiments, such as the Destiny 2000 project, filled my time, as well as the ongoing work of transferring the entire cassette catalogue to CD.  Work continued on the first Saffron Matted Voids CD, but it did not actually appear until 2003.


So after the clearinghouse experiences of 1998 and 1999, I had released most of what I had wanted to – except for the long lost recordings of 1994, for both my solo work and for bindlestiff, which is another topic entirely – so I needed to think about what I was going to do next, for my next proper album.


I decided that I would take both looping, and the energy bow, to new sonic heights, and would play pieces that were – not so pretty, not so melodic, not necessarily ambient. Some pieces still would be – but some, would not.


I practiced this style, this new, more aggressive, more risk-taking, more shocking style of ebow guitar, until I felt confident that I had created a sound that at least was somewhat different from the sound I had used on my last loop albums of the 1990s.





In starting out, in 2001, on the first track of the first looping album of the 2000s, I began with a piece so heavy, that it ended up with the unlikely moniker of “Stone Egg” – which actually, was one reference to the classic Chinese tale “Journey To The West”, in this case, the music was so overwhelming, that the title just automatically attached itself to the piece, immediately – because it SOUNDS like a “Stone Egg”.


This is a complete, live, loop, from the very beginning – starting  with a long melody (instead of notes, you will notice) – that is then overlaid with another melody, this time descending…then, more layers, the piece builds very quickly – high pitched notes are added, but the main theme, descending, powerful, ominous – very minor key, continues unabated for several minutes.


Suddenly, a long, complex ebow solo whips across the surface of the existing loop, ending on a MAJOR note – which changes the whole feel of the piece.  More high-pitched material, more wandering, ascending/descending melodies are added – the piece now SO dense as to be almost impenetrable.  The feeling returns to the minor motif, those few moments of major key gone for the moment – two note trills run ominously, strange, winding high-pitched melodies catch the ear, the odd single note pushing into your consciousness – then, that strange moment again, where minor turns to major – you just don’t expect it, you assume the piece will stay minor, and then you are lifted up again, and again – several times, when the loop reaches it’s “peak” – a major key melodic harmonising note is there – probably played live, since it does not recur regularly.


By this time, the loop density is absolutely intense.  It’s so thick, that the brain can no longer really pick out many individual ebow guitars, and now, new, low pitched solos rattle strangely atop the loop, ending up at a super low note, the lowest ebow note you have ever heard, played live atop the densest loop in the history of the universe – probably well over 40 guitars, who knows?


Then, that incredible, live, low-pitched ebow, like the harbinger of doom, so loud, so powerful, comes in once again, driving the piece downwards, down, down, into a place of clashing pitches and deep, deep dense, powerful bowed sound – and just as the live solo ebow reaches the very lowest note, and the piece is at rock-bottom pitch – it ends, in an incredibly profound silence.


The build-up of noise, the almost cacophonous end section, where riotously powerful low pitch ebows, played on the bottom string of an electric guitar tuned to NST, so the ebow can drive down to the low C below E (and it does, more than once) – the rattling, crashing, colliding notes, as that driven, almost mad, super low-pitched solo takes the piece to its final, crash-landing ending – but, it’s real, that is what happened, that ending was NOT planned, I had no idea what was happening – but something told me, DRIVE IT DOWN to the very bottom – THEN STOP.  So I did.


And that seems to have worked.  I love the last part of this loop, it’s like a titanic struggle for world domination – and, I win!


With this track – the genre “fierceambient” is truly born.  And with it, a style I could take forward along with the more traditional, ambient looping styles, so, another tool in the musical toolbox.





Another live to tape, fully real, unedited loop – beginning with a single note, played twice, then a harmony note played along with the two notes – then another harmony, and another, and another…this is based on the traditional “swell” loop, and the first part of this is simply the way you build a “swell” loop.


Then, a lovely, gate-reverb treated lead energy bow begins playing a very odd melody, atop the sweeping looped notes – I’m playing in much lower registers than I used to, and really getting the value out of the lowered pitch of the bottom two strings of the guitar in new standard tuning.


I begin adding new content to the “sweep” loop -  a two-note ascending figure, some long, long notes – trying to expand what the loop is doing, give it more activity, more body.


More long sweeping low-pitched ebows, sliding down the low A string, swooping down, then, more long notes which even out the surface of the loop, making it gentler, still strange, still unsettling, but it begins to calm, begins to find peace, when suddenly, it’s pulled away into silence, and we never really hear “what happened” to “Sun Wu-Kong” – it just ends, and the reverb drops away into silence.





The next piece, is a 13 minute plus tour-de-force of “fierceambient” loop guitar.  Starting with an incredibly complex waveform on the guitar,  one that seems to encompass tremolo, choruses, delays, and the MIDI continuous controller harmoniser pedal for certain (you can hear a very clear representation of strange, beautiful digital artefacts created by this pedal at 0:40, and at various intervals throughout the piece).  I think I may have been processing this loop through multiple devices, because there are so many effects on it that I can’t quite pin down in my memory – except the obvious CC harmoniser with it’s unmistakable sound.


This loop, is a one-take, live, as-it-happened fierceambient masterpiece. It goes through so many sonic changes, and the basic guitar sound is so strange that it is almost unrecognisable as a guitar.  The ebow, however, coupled with the harmoniser pedal, which I am manipulating madly as I loop, is a dangerous combination – creating sonic madness, and even just a few minutes in, this piece has achieved a density equalled only by a few other loops.


Lovely, swooping events, notes fly down as the CC pedal gets suddenly dumped down –24 steps, and then brought up again to some odd interval that forces out various strange, musically incomprehensible, but audibly delightful, sound artefacts.


Throughout, I can hear myself playing away, playing melodies, long, bending ebows, sweeps down, trills – recurring melodies to reinforce the melodic theme – but at the same time, controlling the entire sonic spectrum of the entire loop, looped notes and solo information – at one point, I push the pedal down and LEAVE it down, which drops large portions of the piece two full octaves for perhaps 30 or 40 sections, making everything subterranean, only to suddenly be swept up, like a flight of birds zooming heavenwards, feathers falling as they rocket skywards.


Swooping, crashing, now, high-pitched ebow melodies can be heard somewhere, buried in amongst the madness of this loop, at about the 8 minute mark, there is a very, very strange section indeed, where the whole piece seems to move up into the stratosphere, circling above our heads, waiting to come crashing back down to earth.


I would stress that this piece is live, and it’s wholly improvised.  I did not practice it.  I got the basic guitar sound, that would have taken a while, and once happy, I would tune up, start the tape, and, using the MIDI CC pedal generously, manipulate the heck out of the entire loop WHILE I am soloing on top of it, and adding more notes to it, and trying to control this wild, crazy musical event – which is like nothing I’ve ever heard or done before.


I was determined to find a new musical vocabulary, to do something different with ebows and looping, and, the loops on “Journey To The West” demonstrate admirably that I did just that.


“The Monkey King” is the longest, and strangest (well, that would be a toss-up, between this and “Stone Egg) of them all, and I just sat there and PLAYED – and this is  what came out.


I am very, very pleased that in the year 2001, I could sit down and create something this musically complex, with the variations, wild sonic changes, that this piece has, completely from my imagination – give me a beautiful guitar sound – and I will take it SOMEWHERE.


Suddenly, at what seemed just the right moment, I brought the piece to a VERY, VERY sudden stop – by shutting OFF the loop, and the harmoniser, at the same instant with the pedalboard.


I did not plan that ending, I had no idea how long I had been playing, I just reached a point of seeing – I saw when I should end it, I did, and, it worked PERFECTLY.


I have rarely been so pleased with a fully improvised piece, but “The Monkey King” came out very, very well indeed, and showed me also what might be possible that moves beyond the standard, reverb drenched, ultra clean “ambient” loops I had been working with for the previous decade.


It was time for a change, and these first three tracks absolutely signal and demonstrate that change – that fierceambient was here to stay.





And now for something completely different... Because I didn’t want the album to be nothing but fierce ebow loops (and at this point, with the first three tracks complete, it looked to be heading in that direction) so I set out deliberately to do something very different indeed.


Being known primarily as a guitarist, I thought it time that I also bring to bear my ability on the keyboard, self-taught on piano from the age of 4, when I picked out the melody of “Theme From Exodus” to my parent’s everlasting amazement, and I’ve always kept my hand in over the years, usually, on synthesizer rather than on a real piano.


At various times in my life, I’ve had more or less skill with the piano.  As an adult, I did teach myself to sight-read, at least, not really, but slowly, enough to eventually be able to figure out pieces by ear, but reading parts of the melody to give myself a head start, then, just working the piece out by ear as I always did.


Sometimes, I would actually learn the whole piece, by slowly sight-reading – occasionally.  On many occasions, I learned completely and utterly by ear, just by hearing or if I had the guitar chords, I could just “work out” the piano part without the benefit of a written score.


But I can play, I understand chords and harmony and scales, even though I am an “ear” musician, I have some training and understanding on the basics.


What I did with this piece, was take an old, old concept – when I used to still own an acoustic piano, I would hold the sustain pedal down all the way, and just play what I sort of mentally referred to as “dream piano” – which was just constantly swirling arpeggios, for ages, I just loved the sound of that.


When I later acquired a synthesizer, that then allowed me to do this type of improvisation on other virtual instruments, one of my favourite things to being playing “dream piano” arpeggios on a “church organ”, with the reverb turned WAY up, so it was like playing a real organ in a massive church.


So just for fun really, I set up a synth, got a nice atmospheric reverb, and started playing dream piano, using my looper to capture portions of the various arpeggios, locked the loop – and let it play.


That is how “Eating The Peaches Of Immortality” came to be – it’s just a loop of a few different “bits” of either arpeggios, or other melodic information, played on an organ style sound, in a fairly large reverb room.  My only wish for this piece, which is lovely in itself, is I wish it were in a much, much larger reverb – I think it’s perhaps a little too “present” or “bright” – but, that aside, I think it’s a lovely piece of music, which is very dreamlike – it takes me to a wonderful, happy place.





Now we return to the ebow guitar arena, after the bright, happy, peaceful sound of the previous track, this piece seems all the more ominous, more fierce than you would ever expect.


A very powerful, warped, flanged note appears, grows strong and then other lesser notes begin to appear and attach themselves to the long note – and a very interesting ebow technique is being used here, sometimes, it’s being used normally, to “bow” the strings, but other times, I am literally “bouncing” it off the strings, which is creating a really strange cacophony of extra sounds that jump and dance on top of the main loop.


Throughout the piece, which has that one, long, strange note droning throughout, ebows solo through a haze of very thick effects, and that strange metallic sound as the ebow is bounced off the strings over and over and over again – this was still in the day of the original, silver ebow, so you could use the bottom, sides, edges, any part of it as a noisemaker, a strange slide guitar – and in this piece – I do all of those things.


At 3:03, a really beautiful energy bow solo begins, and then wanders down into the lower notes, then, is replaced by a strange, metallic whining sound, which is just the ebow sliding up and down the strings – while a “bounced” ebow or two has now been captured into the actual loop, so we are getting different, odd, ebow-generated “noises” now even atop one another.


I remember thinking at the time, that it really sounded like it might sound if you were trapped inside a mountain, and there was perhaps a cosmic avalanche happening outside – you are trapped, imprisoned, you cannot escape – but, you can hear the madness of the world destroying itself outside on the mountain’s surface.


I love how by using odd sliding effects, misusing the ebow, bouncing on the string instead of just bowing it, that it creates a whole new musical vocabulary that can be effectively used ALONGSIDE normal playing…this demonstrates this principle admirably. At about 6:35, I play an extended “bouncing ebow” solo section, play entire “melodies” but using a “bounce” instead of a note!  It’s very strange, but it works perfectly.


The simplicity of the loop, which in this case is not terrifically dense, helps keep the piece from getting too strange.  A lot of odd things happen, but they then are over, not returning, yet always, that drone, those beautiful, descending low notes, always coming back to reassure you amidst the bewildering array of metallic, slide, bounce and other odd noises that adorn this most unusual composition.


Mysterious whooshes dance across the stereo field, ebow climb ominously then disappear, only to reappear as yet another dancing, “bounced-ebow” solo…but the loop plays on.  The repetition starts to really dig into your brain, but there are enough musical incidents, courtesy of this strange ebow approach, to keep you occupied until the piece finally quick fades away, after getting seriously stuck in your head.





Finally, we have a piece that is perhaps the most “standard” of all of the pieces on this record – built off an already-running loop, whereas most of the loops on this record are completely live – “Tripitaka” arrives fully formed, fading in quickly, and after just a moment, solo ebows begin a cautious journey into the piece, quiet, questing, gradually deciding to settle on first a two note melody, and then, a lovely ascending/descending figure that ends in a low, low trill.


Low, low notes on the ebow, while other layers of solo descend from higher up, this is a piece built from many, many small, short melodies – added in subtly, but the loop becomes fairly dense fairly quickly.


A new, ascending three note melody arrives, followed by a very distinctive downwards figure, that climbs down, back up, and then gradually works it’s way down in a revolving figure – meanwhile, various melodies float about within the loop.


A lovely bent note starts the next solo, and it seems that the piece now has MOSTLY a descending motif, different descending melodies seeming to have taken over from any others.  The loop, now dense, with no one melody really standing out, just plays and plays and plays – a lot of low pitched material giving the loop a lovely thick underbelly – suddenly, at 5:11, there is a super quick, trill-filled descending melody, so fast that it’s over before it begins – and then there you are again, back in that lovely, super-layered descending loop, dense, intense, resolving to a vaguely major-scale with minor-accents feel, it’s difficult to say, there are so many ebows doing so many things, there is both intense density, but at the same time, a strange clarity that allows you to hear EVERY part, each small melody, and they all just fit together – in perfect harmony.


A more major scale, descending melody gets introduced into the loop, which makes the whole thing “feel” much more “major”, although that is just a feeling, nothing is definite, yet everything is clear.


“Tripitaka” is a very dense, very powerful loop, perhaps it’s closest to the traditional Dave Stafford loops of the 90s, but it’s still a world ahead of those loops, dense and wonderful and a clear indication of many good things to come in the decade ahead.


Sudden stop – it’s gone, so quickly and at a moment where you really do not expect it.







“Journey To The West” is over.  If you compare this to the last loop albums from the 90s, this album sounds decidedly different, it’s far more experimental, stranger, the guitar sounds are far more unusual, and the playing and looping is very free – pushing the boundaries as far as I could with the technology I had.


At the same time, playing with a new-found confidence that was born of now having significant experience of both the ebow and the looping process, which allowed me to feel free to just – play, and the loops and treatments took care of themselves – I automatically apply them as I create the loop.  Being able to multitask like this, using the technology of the MIDI continuous controller pedals while playing live – all contributing to a new and exciting style of looping.  


It was 2001, and I had successfully, and very quickly indeed, looped, played and recorded my first album of the 2000s – and paved a way forward that had ties back to the traditional “Dave Stafford” loops of the past, but, more importantly, looked decidedly forward to a future where loops go beyond a typical “ambient loop guitar” piece, into experimental and unusual sonic realms that I was only just beginning to invent.  “Journey To The West” is a powerful, not always comfortable, musical journey, but a very necessary next step in the ongoing evolution of ambient loop guitar.



Please see the entry for “A Dream Of Red Mansions” to read what happens next - the previous record is “destiny 2000”.















notes from the guitarist’s seat:


quiet... peaceful...  ambient music.  pureambient music.

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